Armed forces have rolled into Bahrain from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help restore order in the strategic Gulf kingdom where protesters have shut down the financial centre.
Thousands of mostly Shiite protesters occupied Manama’s business district, turning the regional banking hub into a ghost town as they pressed their calls for democratic change from the Sunni Muslim monarchy.
The Saudi government said it had responded to a call for help from its neighbour as Saudi-led forces from the Gulf countries’ joint Peninsula Shield Force crossed the causeway separating the two countries.
“The council of ministers has confirmed that it has answered a request by Bahrain for support,” the Saudi government said in a statement carried by the SPA state news agency.
It said that under an agreement of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), “any harm done to the security of a member state is considered a harm done to the security of all members.”
The United Arab Emirates also said it sent some 500 police to help “defuse tension,” according to Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan.
It was not clear if other GCC members were participating. The GCC groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Television footage showed convoys of unmarked, desert-brown armoured vehicles crossing from Saudi’s Eastern Province into Bahrain, the home of the US Fifth Fleet.
The Shiite-led opposition alliance said any foreign force would be treated as an invading army.
“We consider the arrival of any soldier, or military vehicle, into Bahraini territory… an overt occupation of the kingdom of Bahrain and a conspiracy against the unarmed people of Bahrain,” said an opposition statement.
But authorites called on the population to “cooperate fully and to welcome” the troops.
Helicopters buzzed overhead as protesters blocked access roads to the Financial Harbour business complex, a day after more than 200 people were injured there in clashes between riot police and demonstrators.
The recent violence was the worst in the kingdom since seven people were killed at the start of anti-regime unrest a month ago.
Shiite-majority Bahrain has transformed itself into a regional financial centre as it seeks to reduce dependence on diminishing oil revenues.
But to many of the country’s disenfranchised Shiites the banking district is a symbol of corruption, wealth and privilege.
Police appeared to have deserted the area, while shopping malls and office towers were closed.
Protesters persisted with a sit-in at nearby Pearl Square, where activists were readying for a showdown with the security forces. Thousands had gathered at the square.
“We are ready for them. What is the difference between the Saudis and police here who shot at us?” asked one protester, asking not to be named.
“We are not intimidated,” said a woman, also requesting anonymity.
Most workers seemed to be following a trade union call for a general strike to protest against violence by the security forces.
The Saudi intervention comes two days after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates visited Manama and urged King Hamad to undertake rapid and significant democratic reform, not just “baby steps.”
Gates told reporters after the talks that Washington was concerned the longer the instability dragged on the more likely Iran, a Shiite theocracy, was to try to meddle in Bahrain’s affairs.
In a major concession to the opposition demands, Crown Prince Salman said Sunday he supported the creation of a parliament with full powers and pledged to tackle corruption and sectarian tensions.
But he warned “legitimate demands should not be carried out at the price of security and stability.”
The opposition has refused to negotiate until the government resigns, a condition the country’s rulers have deemed unacceptable.
Foreign Minister Khalid Al-Khalifa accused the opposition of shifting their demands and likened the protesters to gangsters.
“All goodwill gestures were not reciprocated by (protesters)… Look where we are now,” he said, adding demonstrations amounted to “wanton, gangster-style takeover of people’s lives.”
The mainstream opposition says it is not trying to overthrow the royal family, but more radical Shiite elements have said they want a republic.